I hate you for your freedomCG movies take years to produce, so there’s no question that George Miller’s “Happy Feet” was in the works long before Luc Jacquet’s “La Marche de l’Empereur” became Warner Independent’s smash hit “March of the Penguins”.

What’s remarkable, though, is how similar the computer-animated movie is to the original French version of the documentary — at least at first.

The original cut of “Marche”, for instance, had no narration. The penguins spoke directly to one another, their voices supplied by the French actors Charles Berling and Rohmane Bohringer. Their courtship was structured as a series of poetry exchanges.

The penguins of “Happy Feet” court through rhyme, too, though it’s not quite as high-minded a process: These birds sing pop songs to one another, in the style of “Moulin Rouge”, belting out tracks like Prince’s “Kiss” or Elvis’ “Teddy Bear” to the accompaniment of an invisible orchestra.

Each penguin has a specific “heart song” that he or she must find in order to procure a mate; Miller, naturally, has decided to tell the story of the one penguin who is different. Unable to sing, little Mumble communicates his heart song through the magic of tap dancing .. and his special difference will ultimately, and quite literally, change the world.

Whether or not you buy into “Happy Feet” will probably depend on how willing you are to follow Miller on his vision quest. Strictly on the evidence of “Babe: Pig in the City”, I was willing to follow him pretty far — for my money, it’s the best fairy-tale movie produced in the English language — but there are so many different tones and ideas fighting for screen time here that the movie becomes an exhausting mess long before it reaches its ridiculous finale … where Mumble, having been exiled from his home by the troop elders whose religious fundamentalism has led them to conclude that his tap dancing is an “abomination” in the eyes of their god, returns triumphant with a beeping web of circuitry affixed to his back.

I thought he’d come home as a suicide bomber.

Of course, you don’t get that kind of deeper meaning in a movie where Robin Williams voices two ethnic sidekicks, but Miller’s staging made it seem possible. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I will say that “Happy Feet” is one of the year’s strangest, and most personal, pictures. For what that’s worth.

Oh, and “Let’s Go to Prison” sucks.

Very Good, Mr. Bond

My nipples are uncomfortably highIt puts its best action sequences up front and manages to avoid actually starting for an hour, but “Casino Royale” is still the best James Bond picture in years. Daniel Craig owns the part, Eva Green is a nice foil and it doesn’t even matter that the villain is kind of a wuss this time around.

Go see it. It is very good.

Considerably less good are the rest of this weekend’s offerings.

“Fast Food Nation”: Richard Linklater attempts to graft a fictional narrative onto Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction dissection of the world McDonald’s has made … which just turns every character into a didactic mouthpiece, and reduces the very real horrors of Schlosser’s book to a series of climactic money shots.

“For Your Consideration”: I have the distressing feeling that Christopher Guest’s comedy well is drying up. His ensemble is starting to visibly jockey for screen time, the jokes are becoming increasingly less barbed, and the pacing is off — by the time Fred Willard turns up as his usual cheerful-rube, I was relieved, because it meant we had to be at the halfway point.

“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”: Dito Montiel’s autobiographical whinge about his knockaround youth in Queens has a great cast — and never mind Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBoeuf and Rosario Dawson, that Channing Tatum guy has real chops. But Montiel has no vision, and the picture ends up being a movie about other movies, instead of a movie about a life.

Oh, and there’s also “Let’s Go to Prison”, which I’ll be seeing later this afternoon (assuming my latest dental appointment doesn’t go south and derail the whole day), and “Happy Feet”, which Rick reviews for Metro but which I can’t even begin to describe in this post. I’ll tackle it tomorrow.

Boy, I wish Metro was putting my stuff online faster.

Fitzgerald Was Wrong

If the glove don't fit, the book's a hitOf course there are second acts in American lives. And third ones. And encores.

And then there’s whatever the hell O.J. Simpson is doing.

Look, I was as guilty as anyone else of prurient interest in the Simpson murder trial back in the nineties; the crime itself was spectacular, and once the trial began it was fascinating to watch justice perverted in slow motion (“sidebar, your honor”) every time I flipped to CNN.

I was also in Los Angeles for the Bronco chase, so I guess that’s something.

But now, evidently having given up scouring every golf course in America in search of the real killers, the Juice has decided to explore the crime from inside the mind of the murderer. He’s written a new book, “If I Did It” , in which he hypothetically discusses the crime as though he’d been the one holding the knife — just for shits and giggles, of course, since there’s no way this constitutes a confession.

And he’s promoting it with a two-part TV special to be broadcast — where else? — on Fox.

Oh, and Michael Jackson’s back, too.

Sorry if it’s all too much. Please accept this puppy chaser with my apologies.

Highly Defined Complications

Are We Blu?For the last few months, the HD-DVD format has enjoyed higher visibility and a wide selection of titles … while its competitor, Blu-ray, has mostly been discussed as a triumph of self-destructing marketing.

Today, though, the tide could start to turn.

Timed to coincide with Sony’s launch of the Blu-ray equipped PlayStation 3, Fox is entering the high-definition market with its first brace of titles: “X-Men: The Last Stand”, “Fantastic Four”, “Speed”, “The Transporter”, “Kiss of the Dragon”, the remakes of “Flight of the Phoenix” (hey, House is in it!) and “The Omen”, the expanded edition of “Kingdom of Heaven” and, um, “Behind Enemy Lines” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”.

Now, Fox is decidedly not supporting HD-DVD, meaning that these titles will be available exclusively in the Blu-ray realm. And most of them are genuine blockbusters, rather than the bet-hedging mix of catalogue titles and middling releases that Disney used as its entry into the format (“Dinosaur”? “The Brothers Grimm”? Really? That’s your strongest suit?)

The fine folks at Engadget HD have been keeping a running tally of high-def DVD releases, week by week; according to their latest update, the balance now stands at 114 HD-DVD titles and 97 Blu-ray titles. Some of them are duplicates — Warner’s getting really good at covering both formats, and Paramount now plans to release its major titles on both formats as a matter of course — but most of them are exclusives. The question, in the coming months, is which of those exclusives will pull people towards one format or another?

Say what one will about “X-Men: The Final Stand” — and I’ve said my piece — it’s been a huge seller on standard DVD. Fox’ decision to put it at the forefront of its first Blu-ray wave, along with a selection of other genuine blockbusters, looks like a real commitment to the format.

Of course, some of us are still holding out for that increasingly less mythical combo player … after all, Universal’s titles remain exclusive to HD-DVD, and I really, really want to include “King Kong” in my library.

Still the Conqueror

We continue our elegant courtship, yes?In its second week of release, “Borat” once again topped the North American box office, holding that “Santa Clause” sequel at bay and adding an additional $29 million to its take.

(Estimated ten-day gross: $67.8 million. Given the movie’s budget, that makes this a runaway smash.)

Sacha Baron Cohen make serious benefit from this, I hope. And I also hope that Fox pushes him for a Best Actor nomination — he’ll never win, of course, but this kind of performance deserves to be considered by the Academy on some level.

Oh, and I was going to post a link to my Metro review of “The Return”, but it doesn’t appear to be up yet. No big loss, really; the movie’s pointless. So there you go.

UPDATE: Here it is.

I have this recurring dream where I make lame comedies ...Last week was a really, really good one for movies — you had your “Borat“, your “Flushed Away“, your “Sleeping Dogs Lie“. All strong, interesting and genuinely creative films. And all very funny, too.

This week, there’s one: “Stranger Than Fiction“, a lovely little bit of surrealism that stands as the sort of mainstream cousin to Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — or, possibly, what those films might have been if they’d been made by a mainstream director.

I’ve never really enjoyed anything else Marc Forster has made — “Monster’s Ball” is posturing crap, “Finding Neverland” is competent but entirely uninteresting and “Stay” is an overly digitized mess — but this one’s just about perfect. It’s charming, it’s funny, it’s quite moving, and it doesn’t even matter that the trailer reveals a crucial plot point. Just see it.

Everything else, you can miss. Here are the quick-n-easy summaries:

Conversations with God“: Remember that “Simpsons” episode where Homer skips church to watch the football game, and God drops by for a chat? This is a lot like that, only terrible.

Driving Lessons“: Julie Walters dives fully into the role of a drunken, egomaniacal actress (apparently patterned after Dame Peggy Ashcroft), but the movie around her is kind of a slog. Oddly, Walters has no rapport whatsoever with her co-star, Rupert Grint, despite having played his mother in several “Harry Potter” movies.

A Good Year“: Russell Crowe plays an asshole banker who learns to be less of an asshole when he inherits a French chateau and gets to know the wacky locals. Oddly, he’s much more convincing as an asshole.

Harsh Times“: And speaking of assholes — “Training Day” screenwriter David Ayer makes his directorial debut with this jittery study of two jacked-up idiot friends (played with impressively misplaced commitment by Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez) who tool around Los Angeles making trouble. Ayer thinks he’s remaking “Taxi Driver”. He ain’t.

“The Return” was not screened for critics, so I’ll be catching that later today. The trailer makes it look a lot like “Carnival of Souls”. Hmm.

Lame Duck, Empty Suit

Really, nothing I write is going to be funnier than this pictureI haven’t had the chance to watch last night’s “Daily Show”, but please, for the love of god, tell me they did something on the President of the United States acknowledging, almost cheerfully, that he’d lied to the press last week.

Crooks and Liars has the video here.

Gotta say, though, it wasn’t the admission of the lie that I found most sickening — it was the way Bush admitted it, patiently explaining to the assembled White House press that he had to lie about keeping Rumsfeld on in order to make those pesky reporters stop asking about whether he’d be keeping Rumsfeld on: “The only way to get you onto another question was to give you that answer.”

It’s these moments, when he lets the mask of geniality slip and reveals just how much he holds the rest of us in contempt, that are so crucial to the understanding of the Bush presidency and its relationship to the American people.

Jon Stewart’s rhetorical question — “Do they think we’re retarded?” — is funny, but it’s just a little off the mark. The truth is, Bush really does believe he’s the smartest guy in the room.

Explains a lot about the last six years, doesn’t it?

One in 250

That’s not a political calculation, but the number of dental anaesthesias that fail to take, according to my dentist.

He told me this as we were sitting in his office, wondering why I still had sensation — oh, such exquisite sensation — in my lower jaw.

Dental appointment rescheduled. Tooth still broken. I repeat, for posterity: It can always get worse.

On the upside, it looks like the American people finally decided to put the brakes on the whole going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket thing, so that’s nice.

Adrienne Shelly

Unbelievable ... that's the word, all rightI was shocked to learn, over the weekend, that Adrienne Shelly — best known for her work in Hal Hartley’s early films “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust”, but also a filmmaker in her own right — had been found dead in a TriBeCa apartment, an apparent suicide.

I’d met her at a couple of Toronto festivals, and while you can never really know anyone from a casual conversation in a crowded hotel corridor, she just didn’t strike me as the type to end up that way; she was just too centered. (Check out her appearance in Rosanna Arquette’s documentary “Searching for Debra Winger“, if you have a chance.)

Anyway, it turns out it wasn’t suicide after all; a construction worker has been charged with second-degree murder in her death. Ray Pride’s eloquent summary can be found here.

So, um, yay. I hope the New York Post runs a correction.

My other other gig.